Kerry turns Bush's carrier landing against him.

Political ads dissected and explained.
Nov. 13 2003 5:32 PM

Air Craft

Kerry turns Bush's carrier landing against him.

"Carrier" was produced for the Kerry campaign by Riverfront Media/GMMB & SDD. To watch the ad on the Kerry campaign Web site, click here and choose your preferred format and download speed next to the word "Carrier." For a transcript of the ad, click here.

From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan

The new John Kerry ad, which began running this week in Iowa and New Hampshire, makes its point with labels and costumes. The first shot shows the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln dressed in a banner that says "Mission Accomplished." Since the worm turned in Iraq, President Bush and his spokesman have advanced the dubious claim that the sailors aboard the carrier were responsible for that act of premature signification. But the Kerry ad doesn't go into all of that, settling instead for the simpler irony of the administration declaring victory in Iraq too soon.

The second shot is Bush, in the infamous shot after he landed on the deck of the carrier, dressed in an olive-drab flight suit (military garb and straps were in last season) with a helmet tucked under his arm. The ad suggests that this was a phony costume to go with the false label on the big ship. Bush had no right to wear military garb, because he never served in the real military, only in the Texas Air National Guard, which kept him far from Vietnam. This juxtaposition is a page out of the Bush family's own political playbook: It's Michael Dukakis playing soldier in a tank.

Next we see our hero Kerry—not on an aircraft carrier, but in front of one, and wearing not a military uniform, but necktie and shirtsleeves, the uniform of a hard-working politician who fights for the people. The fourth image is a black-and-white still of Kerry having a medal affixed to his chest. The truthful label "Combat Veteran" flashes across the screen. Then we see more shots of Kerry in action, as it were, on the Senate Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees. He leans forward with his head bent over, his eyes peering intently at some invisible witness as he gestures, pointing and chopping at the air, as he makes very important points about our nation's security.

Taken together, these pictures say: John Kerry has the right to wear a military uniform but doesn't feel the need to show it off. Bush has no right to wear a uniform but does. The voice-over narration develops this idea further: "Who can take on George Bush and change the direction of the nation? John Kerry. A leader on national security. A decorated combat veteran. Served on the Intelligence Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee …"

The ostensible concept of the ad is decorated veteran (Kerry) versus chicken hawk (Bush). But this ad isn't really directed at Bush; it's a dagger pitched at Howard Dean, the Democratic front-runner, whom Kerry will probably have to beat in New Hampshire to get a shot at the big guy in November. The more subtle message it conveys is that while Kerry has the military and national security credentials to take on Bush, Gov. Dean—who avoided service in Vietnam with the help of a back injury that didn't prevent him from doing some heavy skiing in Aspen, and has no background in military or foreign policy matters—cannot.

This is a well-made, effective ad with one big problem. If you're looking for someone whose authentic military costume and impeccable national security credentials put him in a good position to challenge Bush on Iraq, Kerry's a reasonable choice. But Gen. Wesley Clark is a much better one.

From: William Saletan
To: Jacob Weisberg

What strikes me about this ad is what's missing. John Edwards' latest ads start out with Edwards talking. Joe Lieberman's consist entirely of Lieberman talking. Ditto for Howard Dean. Kerry's previous ads showed him talking, as well. But in this ad, we don't see him talking until the end, and he delivers no more than the "I approved this message" line required by law. At that point, it becomes clear why. You can't sell what you ain't got.

I hate to be such a grouch about Kerry. He's done a lot of good work as a senator. He's had moments of tremendous bravery in the political arena as well as in war. He's often accused of duplicity when he's really just trying to be honest and thoughtful about the nuances of a difficult issue. But the guy just doesn't connect. If you want to sell him, you can't let him do the talking. You have to do it for him.

That's what this ad does. It reviews his career: his heroism in Vietnam, his expertise in national security and foreign affairs, his knowledge of tax and health care policy. It's a strong list. But people don't vote for a list. An ad is a chance to show them the candidate. In this case, they see the candidate in snippets but can't hear him. As you note, most of what they see is a senator gesturing in hearings. You could imagine similar footage of Edwards addressing a jury. He's doing something, but it's just a guy in a suit, talking.

What baffles me is the opening shot of Bush in military gear. I agree that the "Mission Accomplished" banner is now instantly embarrassing to the White House. But I don't think the same is true of Bush in the flight suit. The Dukakis tank ad worked because Dukakis looked ridiculous in the outfit immediately, and the ridiculous footage went on and on while the ad recounted all the military programs Dukakis had opposed. In this ad, Bush appears in the flight suit only briefly at the beginning, and he looks pretty swashbuckling, if you ask me. I'm tempted to conclude that Kerry's team chose this footage not to make Bush look ridiculous but to make him look too tough for Dean.

Kerry's five seconds at the end are painful to behold. His head sways from side to side as he lumbers toward the camera. His eyes are glazed. What he's looking at or thinking, I have no idea. The background—a corner of what appears to be a windowless, brick-walled room—leaves the impression that Kerry is trapped in some underground bunker where a squad of political consultants is forcing him to retake his line again and again. His voice is oddly high and soft, suggesting that something bad is happening to him, but he doesn't quite understand what. I don't want to vote for this man. I want to rescue him.

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.